Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Is Pacifist Absolutism Immoral?

Unconditional belligerence is plainly immoral, among the most destructive forces at work in the world. The world has too much war. I can easily understand the desire for all war to cease. In a very understandable reaction against a too-belligerent world, a growing number of people hold the position that its opposite -- unconditional pacifism -- must therefore be the moral alternative. In fact, some of the New Pacifists would say that absolute pacifism is the only moral alternative.

My contention here is that absolute or unconditional pacifism is itself an immoral position. Is that overstated? I don't think so; consider what happens when anything -- pacifism included -- is elevated to an absolute, and claims the spot as the single highest moral good in existence, bar none. Make no mistake: whenever something becomes unconditional, that means it is claiming sole title to the highest possible spot. If it were not claiming the highest spot for itself, it would be conditional on whatever was more important, rather than unconditional. The fact that many New Pacifists brook no arguments and will not interact with other viewpoints (other than to display disdain) is evidence of unwillingness to consider the blind spots that come with such absolute allegiance to any position.

The most noticeable blind spot of pacifist absolutism is this: What is the morally right choice when two moral principles are in conflict? What happens when one good motive is in direct conflict with another? Jesus spoke of this kind of situation. He used an example common to his hearers, the custom of circumcising a child even on the Sabbath day. Two positive principles from that culture are in conflict: the Sabbath and the covenant of circumcision. The greater one wins, and a child is circumcised even on the Sabbath. Whoever breaks a lesser rule to keep a greater one is innocent of any wrongdoing and is considered without fault in breaking the lesser rule. In using this common example for his hearers, he established the general principle that the greater principle should be followed in the case of a conflict.

The ultimate test of absolutist pacifism occurs when there is a choice between defending the innocents who would be killed or offering no effective resistance. This situation arises time and again in human history: someone intent on attacking and killing will not be stopped by anything less than force. Here there is a direct conflict of life against life. Here unconditional pacifism ends up sacrificing the lives of the innocent in order to preserve their own personal theoretical innocence and the lives of the attackers. But such an innocence is a very tainted innocence. If the choice has come to the point where pacifism means deliberately consigning the innocent to death and refusing to act meaningfully in their defense, then at that point pacifism has become immoral. If the choice is between protecting the aggressor and protecting the victim, then protecting the aggressor is the lesser duty, but protecting the innocent is the greater duty. Make no mistake: as Christians we still see a duty to protect even the guilty. But the duty to protect the guilty does not trump the duty to protect the innocent.

Pacifism often makes the mistake of considering inaction to be morally neutral, or considering talk to be substantially different from inaction even when the other person is clearly not listening. It is not. Whoever sacrifices an unwilling innocent to save the guilty has blood on their hands, even if they never took up arms; doubly so if they did it for selfish reasons of maintaining their own personal purity and claim to personal innocence while turning their backs on those in life-threatening danger. Under those circumstances, it is the defenders of the innocent whose actions are pure even if they took human life, and the deserters of the innocent who have blood on their hands even if they assume their hands are clean -- a mistaken assumption under the circumstances.

To be sure, war and violence are often used wrongly. They are probably used wrongly more often than they are used justly. I would not want anyone to suppose that those speaking against any given war are immoral. The voice calling for peace is a valuable voice that speaks of what all innocent people wish could happen. Peace is always the goal and should be the first choice of method. There are even times when the person being attacked is willing to die; in this special case, pacifism may be morally permissible even to the point of the innocent's death. But when the innocent victim is unwilling to die, and when the aggressor will not stop until the victim is dead, then inaction is no longer ethical or acceptable, and indecisive action is no better than inaction. It is not always honest to tag any use of force with the pejorative labels "violence" or "belligerence".

In some ways, pacifism has become the new purity code: some New Pacifists have no trouble at all saying not only that they are right, but making clear that anyone who disagrees with them is, on their view, morally unclean. In this, I believe they are badly mistaken.

The hazards of writing about the dangers of pacifism are that the dangers of belligerence are, in the majority of cases, greater. Why would I speak out against pacifism? Because the New Pacifists are, often enough, absolutists. Because the time will come again when innocent lives are at stake, when the desire to protect the guilty conflicts with the desire to protect the innocent. I would not see the innocent sacrificed to someone's noble but misguided decision to prioritize the lives of the guilty over the innocent, or the misguided decision to live out the desire to keep ourselves from bloodshed in such a way that we are to blame for the bloodshed we refuse to stop.

This has been in the back of my mind for awhile, but actually putting my thoughts into a post was spurred by this post and its comments at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. The earnest pacifist in the comment thread there is not at all the direct cause or addressee of these comments, as they had been in my mind for some time. She simply reminded me that I was overdue to post my thoughts on the subject.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Make no mistake: whenever something becomes unconditional, that means it is claiming sole title to the highest possible spot. If it were not claiming the highest spot for itself, it would be conditional on whatever was more important, rather than unconditional.

I had never thought of that before, and it's such an excellent point! Especially when I consider that God's love for us is unconditional.

Probably such a stark choice as you posit is rare; usually there are all sorts of in-between things that could be done to protect the "innocent", not that anybody really is. Like pepper spray or shooting in some non-lethal spot or running away; usually there are options.

In Orthodox thought, if I were ever in such a situation (kill the aggressor or let the victims be killed) I would not be considered pure in either case. In choosing the lesser evil, I would still be choosing evil. I would still have to confess it as sin. If the world were perfect, I wouldn't be faced with such choices, and whose fault is it the world isn't perfect? Mine as much as anyone's, or more. Or if I were a saint, I could pray and some miracle would happen, and whose fault is it I am no saint?

Another piece of fine work, Anne. Thanks from this one-time (many years ago) absolute pacifist.

Weekend Fisher said...

I have high respect for the type of pacifist who stands between the attacker and the victim; that is a pacifist I would praise. The one who stands to the side and watches, not so much.

I think one reason I want to voice this is the growing number of people in the West who seem -- well, you're familiar with the concept of an honor suicide? Many are ashamed of the West and think the only honorable thing the West can do is die. And so they preach the immorality of self-defense in the face of known enemies. I'm not saying that's the case for all; but I've met a few for whom I suspect it's the case. And when it's the case, that's an evil and pernicious little motive for playing holier-than-thou and convincing people it's immoral to defend the helpless.

What you said about it being rare to be that extreme. I agree. For instance, I've heard the American Civil War used as an example of a time when war solved something, namely slavery. But there had been a proposal for the government to redeem the slaves and purchase their freedom. Can't remember if it also included funding for a startup home. Can you imagine the destruction and devastation that would have been saved if the pacifist's answer had gone through? The economic and social impact too -- the North followed a scorched-earth policy at times, and then a long and none-too-gentle military occupation during "Reconstruction". Long story short: if the pacifist route had been managed, the end of slavery could have been a national triumph instead of a mixed triumph/tragedy with long-reaching scars.

But I'm rambling. I'm curious -- are you willing to mention why you're no long an unconditional pacifist?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Orthodoxy taught me that for (almost) every rule, there is an exception. Breaking the rule can sometimes be a lesser sin than keeping the rule would have been. But either way, the lesser evil is still evil. So I gave up the puerile and prideful delusion of keeping my skirts pure and clean. It reminded me of my equally adolescent vow that alcohol would never pass these virgin lips, nor a swear word, either. Yeah, RI-ight...

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi again

I understand what you mean that killing someone is always evil. But where does the guilt lie? Does the guilt lie with the person who did the killing? If they were the aggressor it does. If they had a better alternative it does.

But in the case of a defender killing a would-be murderer, I think the guilt for the death of the would-be murderer lies with the would-be murderer, not with the defender. That is, the evil in the situation is attributable to the would-be murderer in that situation, not to the defender.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Within a legal framework, guilt can only be assigned to someone who sins (a)knowingly and (b)willingly, so I see your point.

Not having a legal framework, we Orthodox pray for forgiveness for sins we have committed knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly.

As I said, in a perfect world, we wouldn't be put in the position of having to choose the lesser evil, and whose fault is it the world isn't perfect? Mine as much as anyone's, at least.

Or, if I were a saint, I could pray and the aggressor would find his hand unable to move or would be unable to see his would-be victims or would suddenly collapse or whatever. (I once posted a story about one such miracle at ) But I am not a saint, and again, whose fault is that, if not exclusively my own? So yes, in Orthodoxy, I am still guilty if I choose the lesser evil, even if I am forced to do so, in the service of my country, for example, or in defense of my family.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Or to put it more birefly, for us, sin is "missing the mark," and choosing the lesser evil still misses the mark.

(Christ, of course, is the Measure and the Mark.)

Steve said...

"Do no harm."

I like that phrase to guide the Christian in his or her freedom.

Standing by and letting someone be killed without lifting a finger is doing great harm.

If we had a lot of Christian pacifists during World War II...we would have lost.

Thank God for Christiand willing to lay down their lives and to kill enemy attackers if necessary.

We are here today because of brave men amd women like that.


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia -
Do you all not recognize the principle that "his blood will be on his own head"? (E.g. Leviticus 20:9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 27) I'm not saying we're bound by the ancient Hebrew laws; I'm saying that the general principle seems legitimate: that stopping a wrongdoer is the fault of the wrongdoer. Otherwise, the right of police, courts, etc. -- there would be no difference between arrest and kidnapping, but for that principle. Which is to say, I think that principle is a human universal.

Hi Steve -
I know a lady who is a Quaker. They're hard pacifists, at least on paper. She's mentioned to me that, during WWII, the Quakers got played for fools by the Nazis. All with the best intentions, but (perhaps, in my reading) an unwillingness to see that the "talk" was not happening in good faith; it was just to pacify that pacifists while they did whatever they pleased.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

During the Vietnam War, when I was a hard-core pacifist, it was the Communists who manipulated and used us. Hard lesson to learn.

Sure, for legal purposes, their blood is upon their own head. Thing is, we have no legal purposes. What we see is relationship. Killing someone still significantly damages our psyches, our growth in Christ, our likeness to Him and our communion with Him. Even when what we did was necessary. As for him whose life we have taken, there's really no way to love a person while killing him. However justified it may be in civil or religious law, it's still missing the mark. So we still repent.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks! Well said.

Tony-Allen said...

Thank you for your thoughts on this, WF.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

I'm not at all saying that the aggressor's blood is on their own head for merely legal purposes. I'm saying that their blood is on their own head for all purposes.

It's a huge and terrible thing to take a human life. That's not in dispute. But whether it should damage our souls and our relationships with God under the very specific circumstances we have laid out -- that is where, I think, we part company. I do not think the defender is ashamed before God nor estranged from him.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Tony & Martin

Thank you for the encouragement!
Anne/ WF